Encountering the Unexpected in Travel

This week brought us a news account that was odd even by 2020 standards.  Biologists encountered the unexpected: a stainless-steel monolith in the southeast Utah desert.  Think super tall, narrow refrigerator. 

The shiny triangular prism belonged more to a sci-fi movie set than to Red Rock Country.  Yet the monolith was in place for four or five years, according to Google Earth, which does not lie. Until it disappeared.

Red Rocks
Imagine more monolith, less Walter White. I’m too cheap to pay for a licensed photo of the monolith and don’t want to get sued by ayleen attorneys.
Aliens or art?

The monolith fueled intense speculation.  Was it sent by extraterrestrial beings?  Was it a message from our future selves?  Or was it avant garde desert art?

Whatever its origin, the monolith was clearly not native to the Red Rock Desert.  Which got me thinking… have I ever discovered a monolith?  Have I encountered the unexpected in travel?

Da, Ich bin ein Berliner.

Berlin comes to mind.  I spent a few days in Berlin in 1997, eight years after the wall came down. 

Berlin was a city in transition.  Much of the former East Berlin was under construction.  The city was a mix of new and not, glamourous and gritty, sensual and Soviet. 

The city was a mix of new and not, glamourous and gritty, sensual and Soviet. 

Berlin was home to anything and everything.  Few things did not belong in 1997 Berlin.

Yet wondering through a cemetery, as one does, I encountered the unexpected: the unmistakable onion-like cupolas of a Russian Orthodox church.  Surrounded by trees and grave markers was a brick church, three times as tall as it was wide.  A bearded Russian Orthodox priest, encircled by incense, prayed for the souls of the dead. 

Cemetery Church of St. Constantine and St. Helena, Berlin-Tagel Cemetery, Berlin, Germany
Cemetery Church of St. Constantine and St. Helena

Thousands of miles from Russia, I hardly expected to find a Russian Orthodox church and priest in a German cemetery. 

I had discovered the Cemetery Church of St. Constantine and St. Helena. It was built in 1894, as part of the Berlin-Tagel Russian Orthodox Cemetery. Tsar Alexander III sent 4,000 tons of Russian soil to the cemetery so Russians who met their end in Germany could be properly buried.

How did I not recognize the Russian cemetery, with Cyrillic-lettered graves, until I ran smack dab into a Russian Orthodox church?  The answer might involve several pilsners the night before…

beer
ein Bier
A hopeful Czech.

Encountering the unexpected is part of what makes travel rewarding. 

During my first trip abroad, in 1995, my college group encountered the unexpected.  A Czech man stopped us to express his appreciation for the United States.  He attributed his country’s transition to democracy to the United States’ example and assistance.  (Very sobering words circa 2020). 

Referring to President Clinton, the man said: “Just like your president comes from a little town called Hope, the Czech people still believe in Hope.  We are all from a little town called Hope.”  I will always remember that sincere man, brimming with thankfulness and American political rhetoric, when I think of the Czech Republic and its people. 

Make room for the unexpected.

Whether monolith, Russian church, or a Czech from Hope, the unexpected abounds with travel.  It’s frustrating, but we can’t force it. We can’t schedule or manufacture unexpected discoveries. But we can make room for them.

We make space for the unexpected by resisting the urge to schedule every minute of our travels.  Sightseeing has its place. Who doesn’t want to see the Eiffel Tower or David or the Sistine Chapel? 

But travel is more enjoyable, more real, when it’s balanced. There’s a balance between the Eiffel Tower and lingering over a glass of wine.  Between David and gelato.  Between the Sistine Chapel and listening to Puccini’s arias waft into my apartment from the streets below.  Yin and yang. 

Why travel?

This—all of this—is why I travel.  The sites.  The unexpected.  And everything in between.

Make time for downtime.  Be approachable. People watch.  Eavesdrop.  Take a stroll.  Take a nap and stay out late.  You will probably remember encounters with the unexpected—the Russian cemeteries and hopeful Czechs—as much as the towers and paintings.

Shells from near Marco Island, Florida
Shells found near Marco Island, Florida

But travel is more enjoyable, more real, when it’s balanced. There’s a balance between the Eiffel Tower and lingering over a glass of wine. Between David and gelato.  Between the Sistine Chapel and listening to Puccini’s arias waft into my apartment from the streets below.  Yin and yang.